Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Faith Works 7-1-06
Jeff Gill

Freedom To Be . . . What?

Over this next year two fiftieth anniversaries are catching my attention, and may have a link of sorts. Let’s see what you think.
1956 and 1957 saw the formal merger of the Congregationalist and "E&R" or "Evangelical and Reformed" Churches, to start what we now know as the United Church of Christ, or UCC. In and right around Licking County we have many congregations with artifacts of this era embedded in their names: Highwater Congregational, Trinity Evangelical, and so on. But all have the "cross, crown, and orb" of the UCC logo surrounded by Jesus’ prayer in John 17 "that they may all be one." From Pilgrim roots to Mercersburg Reformed liturgy, many different distinctive strands were woven together in 1957.
This was the high tide in some ways of the modern ecumenical movement, or at least the Protestant version of it, with an emphasis on organizational and institutional merger. The 50’s and 60’s saw not only the UCC but the EUB and many Methodist bodies join in the United Methodist Church. And the groundwork was laid for what is now the ELCA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, joining a number of liturgical and ethnic Lutheran bodies as one ecclesial group.
1956 also saw the beginning of something that no one at the time probably thought of as being in competition with this unifying impulse. The National Interstate System began, a dream in young Lieutenant Eisenhower’s head as he bounced across the continent after World War I in a military convoy that was lucky to get all its trucks from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
As President Eisenhower, he signed legislation putting federal dollars and influence into building a network of state spanning, limited access highways. Recall uneasily, if you will, that these ribbons of asphalt and concrete were not built originally to sell maple nut logs or meals o’ happiness with small crunchy toys to insert in your car’s upholstery, but to move military equipment swiftly back and forth across the country.
What they ended up doing was not shift armored columns from the west to east coast, but speed the shift of populations from city centers and "first rings" of urban growth to . . . uh, well, here. Exurban, let alone suburban communities as we know them now, are the creation of high speed cloverleafed transportation corridors.
Modern suburban life is a social experiment that we are living through right now, with potential implications on a par with the invention of agriculture or the rise of the nation-state.
No, I’m not kidding.
At no point in human history have we tried to live quite this way, with a growing majority of the population living in this kind of dispersed community structure. The outcomes of what we’re doing are almost utterly unpredictable, except that it isn’t sustainable as things currently stand beyond another fifty years (a whole ‘nother column).
What it has clearly done is affirm and cement the individualist tendencies of American culture into all kinds of social spheres . . . and church life is one of them.
Shopping, consumer choice, and driving around to find what you want: these are part and parcel of modern life. Don’t find exactly what you want right next door? Get in the car/van/humm-vee and drive thirty miles ‘til you find it.
Does this effect church life? Ask any pastor who calls on new visitors. If they’ve been at this a while, they can trace for you the shift in how those conversations have gone over the last 20 or 30 years.
This force works directly against the centralizing, institutionally centered ecumenist perspective that folks in many churches thought was the future as they celebrated yet another merger . . . while they drove home on US Rt. 66 past the ribbon cutting for I-40. Any connection? Well, I’m betting you see it now yourself, all the more if you saw the movie "Cars" recently. No church in "Cars," which is itself a whole ‘nother column . . .
And Happy Birthday today to my dad, who taught me to think in this odd connection oriented sort of way!

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; observe your own trendspotting to him at

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Notes From My Knapsack 7-2-06
Jeff Gill

Freedom Far And Near

Even if you know nothing of 30,000 feet above the ground or 30 miles away, a cumulonimbus anvil-top thunderhead in a rose-tinted dusky glow says to you, "I’m as far away as you’ll ever see something."
Throw in a red tailed hawk circling in the middle distance, receding into an infinitesimal dot just barely perceivable, and such a view has more visceral impact than even a galaxy through a telescope.
Spiral star whirls and globular clusters are distant and amazing, but with a little help from binoculars and a big assist from the knowledge of what astronomers deduce from radio telescopes and infrared observatories. But a towering thunderhead speaks directly to your mind and heart of size and distance and power.
It helps a great deal if said cloud formation is heading away from you, at least for calm appreciation. When the roiling top is swelling both in height and width, looming in the northwest and heading southeast, you start to shift your reflections to a mental inventory of patio furniture and which windows are open.
But when you have an iced tea at hand, the lawn is mowed, and said storm is passing well to the south, ideal for porch viewing, a meditative mood is in order.
Most of us will watch a passing, but powerful phenomena over the next few days: cue the "ooohhh . . . . . aahhhhhh" of standard fireworks crowd response. We can all hope we see more of pyrotechnics from chemicals and electronic launchers than the standard summer aerial display of "(flash) . . . K-Boom." Granville’s Wildwood Park fireworks on Sunday night, Monday’s Columbus’ "Red, White, and Boom," or the OSU-N concert and fireworks, and Tuesday all over the place, will all have officials watch the sky nervously, and ironically.
Ironically, because the fear is less of no fireworks than of being upstaged by Mother Nature’s own, less colorful but more reliably earthshaking light show.
My own preference for an "ideal" Fourth of July weekend is less about getting a good view of the nighttime show, though the Little Guy wants that and will likely get it (and ask to be carried as we walk the long trudge back to the car about 10:30 pm). It is the chance to marvel at the meaning of freedom and liberty that was not just fought for around about 1776, but was dreamed of and envisioned and planned and occasionally plotted and not infrequently schemed for.
The Founders negotiated, discussed, wrote, wrote some more, published, debated, occasionally legislated, and yes, they did have to fight sometimes. They also had to run at the right moment (see Jefferson, Thomas) along with knowing when to stand their ground (see Forge, Valley).
What gave them the vision to see the kind of freedom that led to this amazing society we live in today? Some of it came from a view like I have from my own front porch on a summer afternoon, shading into evening with the vast expanse of the heavens textured by clouds. They reach for infinity, but finally find a limit even in the sky, jet streams slicing a flat anvil top which presses energy down into the lightning and rain below.
Something within that sense of vastness and limit, purpose and process is where the Adams’ and Washington and even old pragmatic Hamilton could look and see a hope and a promise that they translated into documents and traditions we still celebrate today.
I hope they had some good cool tea, if not iced, while they were dreaming all this up.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; send him your story to